Cameron waves the workers' flag
The Conservatives added flesh to the bones of yet another policy last week when they spelled out their intentions for "workers' co-operatives".
It made little difference that the Conservative leader David Cameron had actually launched the party's co-operative movement in 2007 with little fanfare. As the election nears, it was another morsel of meat for the electorate and its commentators to sink their teeth into.
More than two years ago, Mr Cameron announced his plans for a Conservative workers' co-operative against the backdrop of the crumbling, cadaverous Battersea Power Station. Back then, as now, his proposals were derided by Labour as being as hollow as the once great building from which he spoke.
Indeed, it would seem almost ironic that a Conservative government should be promoting that very Labour of movements. But, to convince the country of their intentions, both Mr Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne were spelling out their plans for public sector workers to take control of their own organisations and run them as they see fit.
Mr Osborne said the move was as radical as the transfer of power to people to buy their own council houses back in the 1980s.
In response to the announcement, Schools Secretary Ed Balls, himself a member of the Co-operative Party, rubbished the plans, describing them as a "gimmick" that would "fool nobody".
Mr Balls said: "The Tories don't get co-ops - they're about involving the whole community and users of services, not just workers.
"And look at what happened when the Tories tried to set one up: over two years after launching with a big fanfare, the Conservative Co-operative Movement is still a movement without members.
"While the Tories neglected and destroyed co-operatives, Labour has nurtured and developed them."
At the heart of the Conservatives' proposals would be employee-owned public organisations that still receive public money, while the employees decide the management structure, devise ways to run the organisation in a more cost-efficient manner and, where possible, divide cash surpluses among staff.
Among the organisations expected to take the offer up are schools. According to the Conservatives, the plans would sit perfectly alongside its main pillar of education reform - "free schools" - which will allow charities, parent or community groups and even local businesses to sponsor and set up their own educational institutions.
Under the co-operative model, the schools will have all the same freedoms over admissions, curriculum and pay. But, unlike in academies, teachers would effectively become the sponsors of the school. In the same way that a sponsor establishes the governing body, the teaching staff would designate their own board of governors, either from their own number or from parents or prominent members of the community.
As The TES reported last week, such co-operative schools would enable the teachers to sack their own heads, a move described as "extremely dangerous" by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). Its deputy general secretary Martin Ward said the model could be employed when it came to new schools, if the head was put forward as a "first among equals".
But it would be problematic for a head in an existing school to work under such circumstances, as they are often forced to manage their staff in a "direct" manner.
"It would be very difficult for them to do that if the outcome could be that all of the teachers come together and decide, 'This isn't working for us, clear off,'" he added.
The Liberal Democrats' education spokesman David Laws said the proposals were "half-baked" and could be "incredibly destabilising" for the country's schools.
"The Conservatives are in a total muddle over their education policies," he said. "They just seem to change their proposals, depending on whatever audience they are addressing. It is an incredibly irresponsible way to approach education policy."
Despite the Conservatives' claims that the co-operative model is entirely consistent with their wider reforms to open up the supply side of schools, Conor Ryan, former education adviser to Tony Blair, believes that co-op schools would undermine shadow schools secretary Michael Gove's plans.
Writing on his blog, Mr Ryan described Mr Osborne's move as a "batty wheeze" that would undo Mr Gove's "sensible" work thus far.
Mr Ryan later told The TES: "There is clearly a role for teacher-led schools, and many great heads are developing new trusts and academies.
"But the danger of the proposals formulated by Mr Osborne is that without strong safeguards, a workers' co-op could become the default position when a failing school is to close or a significant group of staff disagree with the direction a new head is proposing.
"This could scupper Mr Gove's new academies and free schools. Truly mutual schools would be led by parents as well as teachers. That's what I assumed the free school policy was about."
The Tories' approach to the co-operative movement has led to criticisms that there is not the emphasis on the community that these types of schools require.
The fear is that such schools would become islands cut off from the people they serve, like William Tyndale School in Islington, north London, during the mid-1970s. Headteacher Terry Ellis ran the primary as a co-operative, and infamously told one of the governors that he "didn't give a damn about parents".
The incident led to James Callaghan's famous speech at Ruskin College in 1976 in response to "legitimate public concern" over "informal methods of teaching" in less than qualified hands. The incident eventually led to the Education Reform Act 1988 and the accountability in place today.
While it is unlikely the Conservatives would allow any school to get to such a stage and cause a similar chain of events, concerns have been raised - particularly from the teaching unions - that their co-op schools would no longer sit at the heart of a community.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, described the policy as a "curious proposal" that misunderstands the co-operative principles.
Dr Bousted said: "Education staff want more autonomy over the professional issues of what and how to teach, and how to assess pupil progress. But they recognise they are part of local networks of schools and colleges which require planned co-ordination if they are to provide the best opportunities for all young people.
"The majority of education staff are suspicious about policies which encourage fragmentation of education provision and schools and colleges to be run as businesses, and think there have been too many already."
Running a school as a business may be offensive to unions, but the plan could be attractive to teachers who could boost their own salaries with any cash that is left over, should they manage to think of "innovative" ways to cut costs. And while teachers may not be inclined to put their salary ahead of the quality of education they provide for their pupils, when a system allows such a practice, it can be open to abuse.
Only last year, Sir Alan Davies, a headteacher in north London, lost his job after helping himself to more than his fair share of the school's coffers, and last week a headteacher was struck off for claiming a #163;3,000 Caribbean holiday on school expenses.
But the Conservatives believe that should teachers attempt to pay themselves so much that it affects the standard of their school, they would fail their Ofsted inspection and thus repel parents, leading to the loss of state funding. Their idea is that the potential for higher pay would act as an incentive for better performance to recruit more students and use resources better.
The plan would seem to attract as many plaudits as critics, depending on one's propensity for optimism or cynicism.
But Clarissa Williams, a head with 24 years' experience and a former president of teaching union the NAHT, believes the opportunity for teachers to run schools - taking classes, marking homework, sitting in governors' meetings and deciding who to appoint as head - is one that will attract very few applicants.
"There is hardly a queue of teachers wanting to be teacher governors," she said. "It isn't like teachers want to be sitting in board meetings. This would just add another layer of keeping teachers away from teaching and learning."
The idea of a Conservative Co-operative Movement may, at first, be difficult to swallow, but it should not be dismissed out of hand.
While it is easy to label it as a "playful nod" to Mr Balls, as the NUT's head of education John Bangs described it, or a "gimmick", as the Schools Secretary himself called it, for the Conservatives it is a charge for the middle ground and Labour's own disillusioned voters. The proposals will undoubtedly turn heads.
A CO-OPERATIVE HISTORY
The modern co-operative workers' movement is commonly understood to have its roots in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, when in 1844 the Rochdale Pioneers - a group of weavers reacting to the Industrial Revolution - was established.
The group was responding to workers losing their jobs and falling into poverty due to the mechanisation of industry.
The pioneers clubbed together and accumulated enough capital to open their own store where workers could buy food that they would not normally have been able to afford.
The group established its principles, including democratic control, distribution of surplus in proportion to contribution and voluntary open membership.
The movement led directly to the Co-operative stores on the high street today.